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West Coast Poverty Center


Economically Disconnected Families and the Child Welfare System


Families in the child welfare system often face barriers to meeting their basic needs and retaining or regaining custody of their children. While some of these barriers, such as substance abuse, mental health problems, or limited income, could be addressed through employment or social service receipt, emerging research suggests that a substantial share of child welfare involved families seem to be grappling with these issues without any connection to employment or some of the major social service programs.

With support from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services/Administration for Children and Families, researchers from Partners for Our Children (POC) and the West Coast Poverty Center (WCPC) examined data from a survey of child welfare-involved parents in Washington State to measure the extent and nature of “economic disconnection” among these families and to explore the relationship between disconnection and engagement in child welfare services. This Dialogue report explores their findings. We begin with an overview of what is known about economic disconnection. We then present findings from a Washington State survey about how many child welfare involved families are economically disconnected and how these families’ economic circumstances and their patterns of engagement with the child welfare system compare with those of families who are connected to the labor market or social services.

Key Findings

This research explores the extent of disconnection among child welfare involved families and the relationship between disconnection and parental engagement. Twenty percent of the families were economically disconnected and the research revealed several patterns that differentiated disconnected caregivers and those who are connected or receive benefits. Economically disconnected caregivers report lower levels of engagement than the other groups, are less engaged with child welfare services than either those receiving benefits or those who are employed, are more likely to have children out-of-the-home, and report substantial unmet basic needs. Assisting parents in obtaining any benefits they might be eligible for could improve their ability to provide for themselves and their children and may increase their level of engagement with child welfare services. Coordination between economic services and child welfare presents an important opportunity to meet the most pressing needs of families, reduce disconnection, and increase parental engagement.

Policy Practitioners Respond

Practitioners and policy makers agreed that the characteristics and hardships the researchers found resonated with their experiences. They noted administrative rules that vary both over time and across programs as developing challenges to receiving child welfare services and that these issues are being addressed in various ways. Several respondents noted that they believe there would be additional struggling families today than in 2008, when the data was collected, possibly including variance in race, gender or marital status. Various suggestions for what additional information would help better understand these families’ situations – the age of the children, not just the parents; the length of time children are out of the home and its impact on reunification; asset and debt information; partner support; child support as an income; involvement in illegal activities; longitudinal and service-oriented data; child abuse, neglect and recidivism; various potential gaps in eligibility for services and timing of becoming economically disconnected; and differences in parents’ locations and the resulting gaps in access to services.

The full DIALOGUE report includes more information about the way the clusters were defined, more detailed findings, and a summary of the discussion with the practitioners and policymakers.  Download the full report [pdf].

Dialogue Participants


Jennifer Hook
Research Scientist
Partners for Our Children


Maureen Marcenko
Assoc. Professor Social Work
, Partners for Our Children


Jennifer Romich
Assoc.Professor Social Work
WCPC Associate Director



MaryLee Allen, Director for Child Welfare & Mental Health with the Children’s Defense Fund

Jon Gould, Deputy Director of the Children’s Alliance

Connie Lambert-Eckel, Deputy Regional Administrator for the Division of Child and Family Services, Region I

David Stillman, Assistant Secretary for the Economic Services Administration, WA State Department of Social and Health Services